Last November I received an invitation to show my sculpture and photographs in the exhibition Berlin-London, Contemporary Art by Women at the German Cultural House on Belgrave Square. The exhibition was to be open for two months. This invitation came out of the blue, a result of a chance conversation one evening. At first I was chuffed to bits to be selected and then my thoughts turned to dread – self-doubt; would I get my act together, to be on time, professional and organised? Imaginary scenes played out in my mind appearing in the form of excuses that something drastic had happened and I could not take part!
As a ‘young’ graduate, I really just wanted to work, to be experimenting and have the courage to keep making. I felt I was unequal to the task of ‘going public’. I was shy of the gaze and criticism of art lovers – resulting in pigeonholing, condemnation or praise, possibly suggesting directions in which my mind had yet to travel.
The day arrived when I was to visit 34 Belgrave Square, the site of the old East German embassy with enormous rooms and high ceilings and not designed as a gallery space. Now it had been transformed into the German cultural building for the Embassy of a united Germany. The force behind this exhibition was Marliese Ammon, wife of the German Ambassador Peter Heimann. For her, there exists few barriers and this exhibition was to create a visible platform for work made across cultural divides where there could be dialogue. She wanted to make one very important point; too few women artists are shown and too few women artists’ work is sold either by galleries or by auction houses the world over. Her statistics are staggering. She wanted to show work by artists who had been collected and recognised despite the Berlin Wall. From the London end of things, I was going to be part of something which would act as a barometer as to where women stood in the 21st Century. “Holding a candle to….” is a saying that immediately springs to mind.
Many of the artists, chosen by the Berlin based curator Ecke Cörlin, had work in the Penz collection in Berlin. Without realising it at the time, I was being given the opportunity to connect with a group of artists whom I would never have met were it not for this exhibition. I suddenly saw the fascinating differences in the considerations, influences and concerns in our work. Both their linguistic and visual language were a discovery to me.
I was offered the choice of two possible places in the building in which I could exhibit. To be invited to choose a whole room for myself! I missed several heartbeats. I chose a ground floor low-ceilinged oblong room with a bay window at the end. The first job was to take measurements and lots of photographs. Where would I place an installation and what would it look like? The room had a quiet atmosphere – a small chamber inside which would be my chamber-like sculptures hidden inside a ….not sure what! While at Heatherley’s, I developed a concept of making three-dimensional mixed-media sculptures I have called Sculpturescapes. They are looked at through a viewing hole which for the Myths project enabled me to transform found objects by harnessing and manipulating light and scale to create illusory mythical landscapes. The viewer looks through an aperture and then by being at the centre of the experience can set off on her own journey. At my diploma show, I was allowed to create a false wall. This was not going to work here. There were cupboards and radiator covers offsetting the room and where would I hang my photographs?
Due to a prolonged dose of procrastination, I had only six weeks to prepare a room full of work. This was not the time to reinvent the wheel and I decided to develop further the mythical landscape of Jason on his quest for his Golden Fleece. I had partially explored the themes of Rite of Passage, horizon and journey during the last three years and now I worked on the idea of the sea, both the wave form and the world below the waves. I love line and worked to try to capture those mysterious shapes that glint and give up tiny hints of the secret world below.
I decided to make six new sculptures of which four would be installed inside a white cube seen through black viewing apertures, one per side. I would show ten photographs of other Sculpturescapes, two would be new. That was the mission. Day and night I concentrated on making and I was only too aware that I had to have enough time to have the courage to scrap work that I was not pleased with and start all over again.
I have made some spectacular mistakes during the set-up! The first was assuming that the lighting would be the same no matter where the sculptures were placed. Working freely in my studio, the neon overhead lights were so powerful I needed very different lighting. Now inside the cube, natural light was cut off and the wall mounted lights had been softened so as not to create too much glare for the photographs. So I painstakingly adjusted the lighting just to recreate what I made in my studio. Of course it wasn’t until the installation date that I became aware of this.
The other big mistake was to assume that the average height of the viewing aperture should be set at 5’2”. Along came lots of small adults and small children – short of giving them a leg-up, I quickly went to Ikea to buy 4 sets of little white steps! The reaction of those that followed, was ‘ Are we that short?’
I had nightmares in the lead up to the opening about the unknown rogue elements that might spring up and stare at me in the face. What happens if the lighting were to blow, worse caught fire? So I created a working Bible with LISTS – short, medium and long term for each area of my exhibition.
Then there was the administration …ahh admin. I had no concept of how much time would be spent on it. There were pieces to be written and photos to be found for the catalogue for the exhibition being created in Germany. Then there was more to be written for the Artists Statement; so I really am an artist? There’s nothing like committing the idea to paper to start thinking, (dangerously), that yes, two years out of the starting blocks, I am an artist. Not being social media or website savvy, I realised very soon through the advice of family and friends, that I should at least have a Facebook page. Then there were the mailing lists, the email templates, the photographs, the postcards and business cards for people to take away, labels to be written. It was like an invading tide. However, eventually there were lots of little ticks in my book.
Just before the opening, two events brought me to tears. The curator Ecke Cörlin and his wife Beate Rönspieß appeared in the room. He held out his hands in which sat my first ever catalogue. There it was, beautifully produced. This was happening and it really was me. Then dear Veronica Ricks and Tony Mott arrived at the opening evening. I had felt totally supported by them all the way through this. I realised this was the Heatherley’s effect. Those end-of-year shows were crazy, somewhat scary events. Rob with his deadlines, Steve, Danny, George with our essays, Tony, Veronica and Lucy as well as the brilliant small class of fellow students all keeping a lid on the steam. The ritual painting of the studio floors and walls, the making of a fake wall, looking at space and learning how to maximise it without cluttering it. I now see I would never have been able to do this without having experienced two years at Heatherley’s.